Music Korea
Okon Hwang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0012


Producing a selective and balanced bibliographic guide on Korean music is a challenging task. Due to the complex political and cultural history of Korea, the words han-guk 한국 (Korea) and eumak 음악 (music), when used separately or conjoined (han-guk eumak 한국음악), are contested terms in Korea. The contestation directly reflects the presence of several hegemonic powers exerting their cultural and social influences on Korea throughout the whole of Korean history, as well as the reaction of Koreans to those presences. From the 19th century onward, the influx of Western culture and the impact of increasing globalization made the picture even more complicated. As such, scholars have been debating the definition and boundaries of Korean music for decades, and the situation is not getting any easier in the 21st century as newly morphed forms of global interaction become an important presence in the contemporary musical world in and of Korea. It is safe to say that no two scholars would agree on the boundaries of, and therefore the categories within, Korean music. Bearing such a backdrop in mind, this article, although striving to strike a proper balance among diverse viewpoints and aiming to offer a selective guide to the most useful sources regardless of the choice of language, should be regarded as but one more attempt to canvas Korean music. General Overviews showcases various attempts to define Korean music within and without Korea. Reference Works list encyclopedias, dictionaries, and a bibliography on Korean music to which readers can refer for confirmed facts. Journals highlights eight titles appearing in the list approved by National Research Foundation of Korea (한국연구재단) in South Korea. The article then divides the complex musical presence in Korea into three different spheres—Traditional Music, Popular Music, and Western Classical Music in Korea—with selected works cited under these headings. Perhaps due to the ease of access, most scholars dealing with contemporary music scenes focus on the musical happenings within South Korea. Nevertheless, a sizable number of publications on North Korea have been generated over the years, and some of these are highlighted under Music of North Korea. Lastly, dictionaries on musicians and scholarly portrayals and a website on individual musicians appear in the Musicians section, because music cannot exist without people acting as agents.

General Overviews

Even though they all have the terms “Korea” and “music” side by side in the titles, the seven survey books in the following list yield dissimilar portrayal of Korean music (or music of/in Korea); some consider “Korean music” to be equated with Korean “traditional” music exclusively, while others take a truly inclusive stand to embrace not just traditional but also Korean popular music as well as Western classical music, as long as the music making is taking place within Korea or the content creators are regarded as Korean. Four of the books in the list approach the survey of music of Korea through historical frameworks, though with differing degrees of inclusiveness. Although none of these four have any further qualifiers in their titles, it is clear from their contents that they aim to deliberate on Korean traditional music. Jang 1986 allows a small amount of consideration of the presence of Western music in its coverage of Korean music history up to 1984. The span of history considered in Song 2000 is narrower; the book ends with the Joseon (Chosǒn) Dynasty (1392–1897), perhaps because the anchor of the book is the examination of traditional instruments. Jeon 2000, meanwhile, takes a drastic departure from most of the historical survey books that preceded it; that is, it marks historical periods not by dynastic changes, as almost all other historical surveys had done, but in accordance with world history by using terms such as Antiquity, the Middle Ages, modern, and contemporary. It also acknowledges the presence of popular music as part of the history of Korean music. While expanding his original 1984 historical survey, the author of Song 2007 revised the conceptual framework so that the historical continuum is identified by Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modern/contemporary. It also includes Balhae (698–926) and North Korea in an effort to truly reflect the music of all Korean people (han-gyeore 한겨레). If these four books rely on history as a way to organize a Korean music survey, three other books slice through the contemporary scene. Although peppered with brief historical considerations, the basic organizational approach in Lee and Lee 2007 is a genre survey that stays within the boundaries of Korean traditional music; even the discussion of contemporary fusion music is enveloped within the framework of traditional music. Howard 2006 pushes the boundaries a little further by exploring the current music making linked to Korean traditional music, but it is infused with other stylistic elements in order to address the vibrancy and diversity of today’s South Korean music scene. Kwon 2012 draws parallels and contrasts between North and South Koreas’ various traditions, including traditional, Korean popular, and Western concert music.

  • Howard, Keith. Creating Korean Music: Tradition, Innovation, and the Discourse of Identity. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006.

    Its chapters explore samulnori, including its beginnings, its canon, and developments in which this percussion genre combines with other musics; contemporary forms of folk song and pansori; compositions for Korean instruments; compositions for Western instruments; the creation of new types of music; and rebranding Korean music.

  • Jang, Sa-hun 장사훈. Han-guk eumaksa (한국음악사). Seoul: Segwang-ateu, 1986.

    A historical Survey of Korean music in nine chapters, from “Prior to the Three Kingdoms Period” through “Reconstruction of National Music 국악.” Music of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897) is divided into four chapters: the early, the middle, the latter, and after the Gabo Reform. Includes Protestant hymns and military band music.

  • Jeon, In-pyeong 전인평. Saeroun han-guk eumaksa (새로운 한국음악사). Seoul: Hyeondae eumak, 2000.

    A historical survey in correlation with world history: the primitive (Dawning of Korean Music), Antiquity (the accommodation of music from the China’s western border), the Middle Ages (the feudal age), the modern (the age of humanism), and the contemporary (the age of seeking Minjok 민족 Music).

  • Kwon, Donna Lee. Music in Korea: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    This introduction to music of contemporary Korea is organized around six themes (e.g., “The Court as Cultural Conduit,” “The Singing Voice,” “Colonial Legacies in Korea”) that are helpful in understanding the musics of both North and South Korea. Comes with an 80-minute CD and a companion website.

  • Lee, Byong Won, and Yong-shik Lee, eds. Music of Korea. Seoul: National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 2007.

    Includes a survey of history, court music, classical vocal music (gagok, gasa, and sijo), classical instrumental music (pungnyu), vocal folk music, instrumental folk music (pungmul and samulnori), professional vocal music (pansori and changgeuk), professional instrumental music (sanjo, sinawi, jul pungnyu), religious music (Buddhism and shamanism), and contemporary Korean music.

  • Song, Hye-jin. A Stroll through Korean Music History. Seoul: National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, 2000.

    Instruments and their relationship with people is a major point of entry in this historical survey, which covers the ancient times to Joseon (1392–1897). Includes an abundance of photo images of instruments, murals, paintings, documents, and performances.

  • Song, Bang-song 송방송. Jeungbo han-guk eumak tongsa (증보 한국음악통사). Seoul: Minsokwon, 2007.

    A general historical survey in three chapters: the first chapter is on Antiquity, including Balhae (698–926); the second covers the Middle Ages, including Goryeo (918–1392) and Joseon (1392–1897); and the third deals with the modern and contemporary periods, including the activities of pro-Japanese collaborators, the state of contemporary Western music, and North Korean music.

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